It’s a familiar story: an industry is thriving and regional companies want to grow, but can’t find workers with the right skills or specialized experience. Meanwhile, young people graduate high school and want to start working more meaningful, higher-paying jobs, but aren’t clear where to start.
Last year, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development partnered with the Maryland Society of Surveyors and Baltimore City Public Schools to develop a pilot program for interested students to get a foothold in the field of land surveying. The program’s initial success confirmed for us the value of working directly with employers and schools to bridge these skills gaps, but we saw that maintaining those relationships, streamlining the program, and scaling up was going to take dedicated resources and staff time beyond MOED’s normal scope of operations. That’s where Urban Alliance came in.
Urban Alliance already provided some of the soft-skills training components of the initial pilot, and already had experience coordinating internships for Career and Technology Education students in Baltimore City. They were an obvious choice to take over the program, in partnership with MSS’s Baltimore Chapter and its President, Bryan Hanie, who has been a champion of the program.
UA, in turn, was able to partner with Grads2Careers—a city-wide initiative to help high school students transition to specialized occupational training—for funding and additional support services for students, allowing them to double the number of placement opportunities.
2018’s cohort of young men and women, hailing from Mergenthaler Vo-Tech, Patterson High School, and Green Street Academy, were selected through a competitive application process for full-time, paid summer internships at firms around the Baltimore region. Through June and July, they worked out in the field with their crews or learning CAD skills in the office Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, they received morning classroom instruction from MSS members in preparation for a national certification exam. Afternoons were spent brushing up on math and working with Urban Alliance’s program coordinator, Nikki Rucker, to formulate their post-high school, post internship plans for future education or employment.
While the second year built on the success of the first, some sobering challenges remain. For example, for young people without a car—the majority of participants in Future Surveyors, like the majority of young people in Baltimore—relying on the state’s public transportation system to meet their work crews around the region at 6 or 7am can be a real challenge. Fortunately, Urban Alliance was able to help with small vouchers for ride-sharing services as a back-up. In this program, as in the open job market, a safety net like that can be the difference between keeping a job or losing it.
When challenges like that can be addressed, students thrive. One student from this year’s cohort, Kyree McLeod, has already been offered a full-time position as a rodman at RK&K, joining the ranks of those 2017 Future Surveyors who have maintained relationships with their employers. Several are now pursuing their bachelor’s or associate’s degrees in engineering at area colleges and community colleges while working part time—in one case, working on survey crews during breaks in the academic year. One young man continued to work with his surveying firm full-time for several months before pursuing other work, and one is now a full-time employee at Century Engineering, a major regional engineering firm, taking night classes at CCBC to eventually obtain licensure.
Every young Future Surveyor has a story, and hearing these tales makes the need for programs like this become even more clear. Industries like surveying, which offer living wages and opportunities for advancement even to those without a prior college degree, could be a path out of poverty for large numbers of young people in the city. But specialized training programs are needed to help them develop the professional connections, soft-skills, and personal support required to get in the door.
Working with young people from underserved communities in Baltimore City can be a change of pace for some employers. As in the real world, not every placement is great-long-term match, but this program takes the time to understand employers’ needs and concerns going in, with the result that employers are more likely to get involved in training, internship, and apprenticeship efforts. Nine employers participated in the second year of Future Surveyors—also up from last year—encouraged by the endorsements of their peers who participated in the program’s pilot year.
We believe in this project because it shows that employers and young people alike are willing to step up and step out of their comfort zones when workforce partners develop programs responsive to their needs. It takes a lot of work to iron out the kinks in a partnership, and to come up with context-appropriate supports for the struggles faced by young people in the Baltimore City. But our young people and our regional economy need us to do this work.